Art sleuth finds stolen Matisse 25 years later

'Le Jardin,' worth more than $900,000, was stolen from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and the museum had practically given up hope of recovering it.

STOCKHOLM — A British art sleuth has recovered a painting by French artist Henri Matisse that was stolen from a Stockholm museum 25 years ago.

Matisse's "Le Jardin," valued at about $916,200, was recovered by Christopher Marinello, an art recovery specialist at the Art Loss Register (ALR) in London.

"It is fantastic that the painting has turned up again," said Kristin Ek, spokeswoman for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. "It was stolen so long ago that really we had almost given up hope."

The painting was stolen in May 1987 when a thief smashed his way into the museum with a sledgehammer during the night.

The theft was reported to both Interpol and the ALR, the world's largest international private database of stolen, missing and looted artwork.

The painting was recovered after an art dealer in Britain checked with the ALR's register before selling the Matisse.

"We are happy the painting seems to be OK and in good condition," Moderna Museet's Ek said. "It was a good start to the new year."

Marinello would not give details of how he got hold of the Matisse.

"No arms were broken and no payments were made," he said, adding the painting would be returned to the museum through Sweden's ministry of culture.

The Moderna Museet is still missing a painting by Georges Braque after a theft in 1993.

Stolen art is a lucrative industry, with $6 billion-$7 billion worth of thefts every year, and the current global economic downturn has led to a surge in crimes, according to Marinello.

Last year, thieves made off with paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and other prominent modern artists from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum worth tens of millions of dollars.

If thieves cannot collect a ransom from insurers or owners, the art is sold on the black market, often for a fraction of its real worth, or even exchanged for drugs or guns.

Of the 360,000 objects on the ALR's database, Marinello said there were several he particularly wanted to find.

The first is a hoard including paintings by Vermeer, Degas and Rembrandt worth $300 million stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.

There is a $5 million reward for the paintings.

"Then there is a Rafael stolen by the Nazis in WWII that is pretty nice," Marinello said.

Marinello, however, will have his work cut out. By his admission, only 5-10 percent of stolen art is ever recovered.

Reporting by Simon Johnson and Mike Collett-White.

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